For about eight hours last Friday, the Cal rugby team played like the title favorites as advertised before the USA Rugby College 7s Championships.
In the 9 a.m. contest against Middlebury, the Bears thwarted the Blue, 29-0. Four hours later, Cal defeated North Carolina State, 26-12. Heading into its 5 p.m. tilt against Arkansas State, the Bears looked prime to advance to the quarterfinals.
But one try by the Red Wolves changed all that.
In its toughest pool game hosted at College Station, Tex., Cal jumped out to an early lead when sophomore Andrew Battaglia scored between the posts, and freshman Russell Webb converted the kick to give the Bears a 7-0 lead four minutes into the 14-minute game.
A minute later, Arkansas State’s Dean Gericke broke loose for a 80-yard try narrowing the lead to 7-5. The seven-minute first half ended, and for the first three minutes of the second half, Cal held on defensively against the Red Wolves’ offensive surges.
With four minutes left in the game, the eventual champions Arkansas State scored the try — but missed the conversion — to take the late 10-7 lead. Cal pressured on to get a score to no avail.
The loss knocked the Bears out of the top of Pool B, which guaranteed an automatic bid to the quarterfinals. The 63-22 margin was also not large enough to place Cal in the two remaining wild cards of this six-pool, 24-team tournament.
“I thought we played pretty well,” Cal coach Jack Clark said. “But we are not happy, unless we are on top of the medal list.”
On Saturday, the Bears played in three consolation matches, winning two games like on Friday. After defeating Texas, 19-7, Cal couldn’t muster a single point against San Diego State in its 7-0 loss. The Bears bounced back hours later with a 36-0 blowout against Cal Poly, ending its tournament with a 4-2 record.
Cal ended its first ever 7s season this fall with a 23-5 record, including winning the inaugural PAC Sevens Tournament at Los Angeles. Now the Bears will transition into the traditional 15s game in the spring — the next 7s tournament will be in next June at Philadelphia.
Despite a .821 winning percentage, Clark’s club is still not yet the perennial powerhouse at the 7s level.
“It’s a maturation process,” Clark said. “It was new to all of us — coaches and players. It will take some time to audit our progress.”
In January, the 15s season will start, and the transition from the 7s to the 15s will start at training camp right after New Year’s Day. But Clark points there are some facets from the 7s — such as ball handling and positional awareness — that will translate into spring season.
Clark will demand much more from his young team this winter than in years past. In grading his team so far, Clark gave a good but unflattering grade, leaving more to be desired.
“Overall, I would give them a strong B,” Clark said.
Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected]
A previous version of this article stated that the point margin for the Cal rugby team was 63-22. In fact, it was 62-22.